Journalists on Sunday Shows Hail Leaker's Actions to Expose Improper Prisons

Far from condemning a CIA officials damaging leak of classified information about ongoing efforts to prevent terrorism, on the Sunday morning interview shows, three panelists -- a former network White House correspondent, a newspaper and radio veteran and a current network anchor -- hailed Mary McCarthy, the CIA staffer fired last week for telling the Washington Post's Dana Priest about secret prisons in Eastern Europe. ABC's Sam Donaldson heralded the revelations as “a victory for the American people" and compared her actions to those sitting at lunch counters in the 1960s, NPR's Juan Williams trumpeted her “right to speak” and her “act of conscience” and CBS's Bob Schieffer characterized the prisons as what “scares” him and claimed the “CIA fired an agent for hanging out” with a reporter. (Transcripts follow.)

On ABC's This Week, Donaldson asserted: "Remember the great American saying, 'disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God.' In this case it was something that clearly I think most Americans would agree is not what we want to do, secret prisons, the right of detention not being open to public scrutiny. I mean, I think exposing something like that does not hurt us. It helps us." Former Washington Post reporter Juan Williams, now with NPR, contended on Fox News Sunday that since “she's an American citizen, she has a right to speak out." Confronted by host Chris Wallace, "You don't really believe that there's any justification for what she did. You don't really?", Williams proclaimed: "Yes, I do....If she felt that this was a violation of our principles as a country and was untenable in terms of her conscience working for the U.S. government, why shouldn't she act?" Schieffer maintained in his end of the show commentary on Face the Nation that “it's not the leakers, it's what they're leaking that scares me. After all, why should a democracy be operating secret prisons? If the government hadn't told us they exist, can we ever be sure who might wind up inside them? Isn't finding out stuff like that what reporters are supposed to do?”

On Friday's CBS Evening News Schieffer had denounced the firing as a “dubious first.” For more about that, and for links to more about the Priest story which won a Pulitzer Prize, see my Friday night NewsBusters item.

Some highlights from the discussions, on the Sunday, April 23 Sunday shows, about the leak case.

ABC's This Week:
George Stephanopoulos: "Sam, let me ask you, is this prosecution or this termination, a victory for national security or a defeat for government accountability?"

Sam Donaldson: "To the extent that the American people are learning something about that the American people don't think is America, don't think is what we're trying to export around the world the way we live, it is a victory for the American people. I'm not running for office."

Stephanopoulos: "The termination?"

Donaldson: "No, not the termination."

Stephanopoulos: "You mean the leak."

Donaldson: "The fact that there was a leak. The termination, I guess you have to go along with Senator Kerry. If someone broke the law, I don't think you can just say, oh, that's okay."

Cokie Roberts: "How can you tell a CIA person that they can leak?"

Donaldson: "But on the other hand, it's like the early days in the '60s in the south. People broke the law. They sat in at lunch counters."

Roberts: "That's fine but they took the consequences."

Donaldson: "But they did it for a purpose."

Stephanopoulos: "They praised the action, but also accepted the punishment."

Roberts: "That's right and you have to take the consequences and if, in fact, there was no internal way to object to these policies and we don't know, that's the allegation of her friends, that there was no internal way to object, if that was the case, she then did the honorable thing from her perspective which was to go and find a way to make the policies known so they could be objected to but then she does have to take the consequences. We can't have as a matter of policy, CIA agents leaking classified information."

Will: "She didn't do the honorable thing in that she did it surreptitiously and got caught. You cite the civil rights movement. That was civil disobedience, the adjective modifies the noun for a purpose. Disobedience is civil when it is public and when you invite and take the consequences. She did not."

....

Donaldson: "Remember the great American saying, 'disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God.' In this case it was something that clearly I think most Americans would agree is not what we want to do, secret prisons, the right of detention not being open to public scrutiny. I mean, I think exposing something like that does not hurt us. It helps us."

Will: "Before she contributed her $7,000 to the Kerry campaign, she took a contract not to do what she seems to have done."


Fox News Sunday:
Juan Williams: "....Here you have his opponents making a political leak very much intended to say that the administration's policy is off-base and taking us down the path of secret prisons that violate our principles as Americans. So you come to the idea that she was trying to defeat this administration because she felt what their activities were doing was hurting the American -- hurting America both at home and abroad in terms of our ideals. Porter Goss says it hurt us for our relationships-"

Chris Wallace: "And she was elected by whom?"

Williams: "She wasn't elected by anybody. But she's an American citizen. She has a right to speak out."

Bill Kristol: "She does not have to right. She does not have a right."

Williams: "Oh, she's not a citizen?"

Kristol: "She does not have a right to speak out. When you join -- when I went to work in the U.S. government, I signed forms saying I would not release classified information. If I had released information like this, I would have been fired. I should have been fired. Let me tell you something, the Clinton administration would have fired her if this had happened. This is an outrageous leak of national security information."

Williams: "She can take a risk, but you're telling me you've never leaked information? Of corse you have."

Kristol: "Come on."

Williams: "People leak every day in this town."

Brit Hume: "Juan, there's an important distinction between disclosing information which the government has not chosen to put out yet or may never and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. That's not to say that all information that is classified should be. However, there are people who are authorized to declassify information and then authorize its release and there are people who are not. This woman palpably was not such a person. In addition, she signed, as Bill pointed out, a statement when she joined the agency in which she swore that she would not do that. So she was honor-bound not to do it. The law restricts the ability to which someone can do that, and she went ahead and did it. Juan, that is manifestly not speaking out. That is not an exercise simply of first amendment rights. This was a violation of her oath and her responsibility."

Williams: "Let me quickly respond. Brit, she took a risk. She was very aware of what she had signed. She is now bearing the costs of having broken that pledge and so in that sense-"

Wallace: "So this is an act of conscience?"

Williams simultaneous with Wallace: "I do believe it, an act of conscience, an act of honor-"

Wallace over Williams: "If it's an act of conscience, why did she do it surreptitiously?"

Williams: "What?"

Wallace: "Why did she do it surreptitiously?"

Williams: "She did it because she wanted to get word out."

....

Wallace: "You don't really believe that there's any justification for what she did. You don't really?"

Williams: "Yes, I do. What are you talking about? The United States should not be engaged, I mean you can have the argument about what we need to do to combat terrorism. But the establishment of secret prisons, and if she felt that this was a violation of our principles as a country and was untenable in terms of her conscience working for the U.S. government, why shouldn't she act?"


CBS's Face the Nation:
Bob Schieffer: “Finally, at my age, nothing much surprises me, but my jaw dropped when I read the FBI has been trying to go through the files of dead columnist Jack Anderson to see if he had any classified documents. Now mind you, Anderson was 83 when he died and did virtually no work for 15 years because of Parkinson's, but the FBI has been pressing his family to get at those files. The family has said no. Dare I state the obvious: that with Osama Bin Laden still on the loose, maybe there are more important things for the FBI to do than that.

“And it happened the same week the CIA fired an agent for hanging out with Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the CIA is operating a secret prison system. The Justice Department will decide whether to bring charges. Almost every day now brings news of yet another leak investigation. But it's not the leakers, it's what they're leaking that scares me. After all, why should a democracy be operating secret prisons? If the government hadn't told us they exist, can we ever be sure who might wind up inside them? Isn't finding out stuff like that what reporters are supposed to do?

“As for rifling through Jack Anderson's files, surely that will founder in its own silliness now that it's been exposed. But you do have to wonder what some government zealot will try next, maybe re-opening the hunt for the killer rabbit that once attacked Jimmy Carter's canoe? No one has seen the beast since Mr. Carter fought it off with an oar. Might still be out there. Dangerous if it still has teeth.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center